Politicians are the least trusted of all professions in this country. Scandals involving expenses, sex or drugs certainly do nothing to reverse this trend but there is a more omnipresent reason for this rank distrust: what politicians say.
Spin, misinformation and downright lies are commonplace in modern politics as votes are fought over tooth and nail. In turn this incomplete information is passed to the electorate, often via the media. Some media outlets then add their own layers of spin, misinformation and lies often through hyperbole and simplification.
During the AV referendum in 2011 David Farrell and colleagues found that just 12% of statements made in the print media were backed up with coherent arguments. Of course, print media is not the sole source of information available but 90% of people aged 15 or over consume newsbrands in print or online, with the Daily Mail leading the way with an estimated 23m readers in 2014.
With so few statements backed up by coherent arguments many people in the UK are being exposed to unbalanced accounts of many of the important issues of the day. The full story of the UK’s involvement in the European Union is one of them.
The referendum on whether we should remain a member is now enshrined in law, both sides of the debate have been ramping up their campaigning machines and key players in the debate have begun to speak out.
Both camps have already resorted to using inaccurate information in an attempt to further their argument. Supporters of both the Pro-EU campaigns and the campaigns to leave have made arguments built on misinterpreted statistics, misinformation or spin. I shouldn’t be disappointed, but somehow I still am.
This disappointment that has led me to create an official UK Government and Parliament e-petition. The petition calls for a new bank holiday to be held just prior to the referendum, and for this bank holiday to be used to hold an event called a Deliberation Day.
The Deliberation Day event aims to cut through the spin and biased information coming from the campaigning groups by encouraging all voters to spend a day learning and deliberating about the issue. The hope is that, no matter the outcome of the vote, we will all have taken part and we will all have made an as informed decision as possible.
How would the Deliberation Day work?
American scholars Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin are the creators of Deliberation Day. The premise is simple; citizens are willing to take up the task of citizenship within the appropriate settings, Deliberation Day creates these settings.
The exact process that an EU Referendum Day would take would have to be determined specific to our needs, but something based on what Ackerman and Fishkin describe would be likely.
Ackerman and Fishkin’s proposal works like this: Held two weeks before a presidential election and over the course of two days, half the electorate would participate on either day allowing the other half to continue in their day jobs. The bank holiday would be mandatory however the event itself would not. The event would be compensated though; Ackerman and Fishkin propose a $150 stipend to individuals that take part but we would have to decide on our own independent figure. In addition, the event would be run by an independent public body who would provide trained facilitators to manage the event.
Those that choose to take part would convene in groups of around 500 at appropriate local meeting places, e.g., local schools or civic centres. Ackerman and Fishkin detail how the first session of the day would be a 75 minute-long televised debate between America’s presidential candidates. The debate would look familiar, resembling traditional televised debates and BBC’s Question Time programme, and would set up the main themes for discussion in the next activity.
After a refreshment break attendees would split into smaller groups of approximately 15 people. This next activity would serve equally as a question generation exercise and a peer-to-peer discussion event. The most popular questions that emerge from the various group sessions would then be put up for debate as a live hustings by local representatives of the presidential candidates’ parties in front of all the attendees. The second session follows the same format but provides a chance to reformulate questions that were not answered adequately or to highlight issues that have not yet been discussed.
For the final session of the day the attendees return to their small groups for a period of general reflection and discussion. There should be no kind of decisions on voting going on, the aim is to allow people to bounce feelings about the day off each other.
This is a very brief summary of what Ackerman and Fishkin describe but any EU Referendum Day version of a Deliberation Day would not need to stray far from this model. For example, instead of the presidential candidates appearing on the televised debate we could see a panel of representatives from the official In/Out campaigns. Equally, instead of party members taking part in the local hustings the campaigns could use their members to represent their sides of the argument. However, depending on the numbers of representatives available, some hustings may have to be live streamed between local events.
There is, however, an element that I feel is missing from the Ackerman and Fishkin Deliberation Day: the presence of independent experts that can provide analysis and fact-checking functions. Much of the arguments from both sides of the EU debate have included figures and statistics that can contradict each other or be meaningless without context. This much needed accountability could be incorporated into the televised debate or introduced as a separate televised session before the group activities.
It’s a big ask, but one that, with the right design and preparation, can make for a successful event with everyone being able to take all the information home with them in order to revisit it with fresh minds during the two weeks leading up to the referendum.
Secondary to the direct learning a new awareness dawns at media outlets and in politicians that the public will not be as easily hoodwinked into reading or believing their spin and bias. Not wanting to risk losing custom or votes both give more intelligent and reasoned arguments when presenting their views. Therefore, the mere existence of the event could help to inspire a new culture of information giving months before the referendum even takes place.
Would it be worth it?
There is evidence that we need this extra information. By our own reckoning only half of us are confident in our political knowledge and 77% say that they know less about the issues in elections to the European Parliament than they do in general elections. Furthermore, surveys consistently show that UK voters hold various misconceptions on salient issues such as public spending or immigration.
However, we should not underestimate the capabilities of people from every walk of life to be able to understand and assimilate complicated information. Previous similar events in Denmark, Canada, Ireland and Holland have proved this.
In addition, Ackerman and Fishkin have already shown that this deliberative process helps to inform voters and, in turn, shape opinions on issues. Separately, Fishkin found that of 459 randomly selected people 59.3% thought the US spent too much on foreign aid and 26% thought the level was “about right”. Following deliberations and an increase in knowledge of the topic, opinions in the group changed to 47.7% “too much” and 40.7% “about right”. Whether or not you personally believe in foreign aid spending is beside the point, the point is that informing people can change their opinion, and therefore, armed with accurate information people may vote differently.
Implementing a Deliberation Day has never been done in its entirety before. To do it properly would be a huge undertaking. However, for a country that so often talks up its proud democratic tradition isn’t it about time that we follow words with some innovative action. Action that would give all voters, regardless of their education, income, ethnicity or background the exact same chance to inform themselves about the most important vote the UK has seen for 40 years. We owe it to our future and the future of generations too young to vote to make this decision an informed one.
The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of The Department of Politics and International Relations or Oxford University.